There has been much activity surrounding a recent Potters Council Question of the Week: “Did you start with pottery by accident or by design?” We all have stories about how we first encountered clay. Mine is, well, kind of… you be the judge.
Despite the fact that when I was born my mother said to my father, “Wouldn’t it be nice if he grew up to be a sculptor?” Having a career in art was far from certain, and was in fact, pretty far fetched. My mother was a musician, having gone to The Julliard School of Music, and she often spent time drawing as well. Her uncle, with whom I was very close, was a landscape painter who earned his living as a house painter. My great-grandfather was a tailor who crafted fine clothing. As children, we were taken to museums, galleries, concerts, even Broadway shows! Our house was filled with art objects. My brothers and I took music lessons and were generally pretty well rounded kids. Though art and craft was always a part of my life, to me it was a hobby, something to pass the time and appease my parents but certainly not a serious endeavor. As a high school student, my interests were in sports. Athletics was where it was at. As my senior year began, while my friends hadn’t even come up with their long list of college choices, I found myself applying early decision to a single, top flight school to become a physical education teacher. As it was, having been a reasonably good student combined with less than rigorous academic requirements, I found that I had enough credits to graduate from high school early. That sounded appealing to me but not to my parents. So in the face of that, my only alternative was to stay in school and make the best of it by filling my day with the easiest courses available. What could be easier, I thought, than an art class? I had always enjoyed working with my hands so I signed up for sculpture. Little did I know that my life was about to change.
The teacher was a young woman, friendly, fun, and the class was relaxed. We did crazy things, crazy by my standards anyway: life size portraits, full body plaster casts, assemblages out of found objects and more. We went to the beach and made sand sculpture. We hung things on trees. For some reason, doing art this time was not the same as it had always been for me as a child. Something about the activity, the material, or the other students around me now made a difference. At any rate, it was clear that for the first time, making art was necessary and I found that the art objects themselves spoke to me. Doing art now was more than just fun, it had meaning and relevance. The major revelation however turned out to be even more elemental and was made clear to me by my teacher. She showed me, not through words, but by how she lived and taught, that doing art or craft could not only be fun and have personal meaning, but it could in fact, be so important so as to devote your life to it. She showed me that you could actually live a life where art was your central theme.
Needless to say, my life changed that year and although I arrived at college the following fall ready to join the jock ranks and take my place among the shorts, sports equipment, and goal posts, I was ready for, and knew inside, that it would take only the slightest push, the most minute inspiration, the easiest of influences to send me over the physical education edge rolling full steam to the art department. Ergo: my academic advisor. He was tall, as fit as can be, crew cut, an attitude right out of boot camp, and his T-shirt that looked as if it was painted on his body. I was not as tall, sported shoulder length hair and an immature beard, a string of beads around my neck, cut off jean shorts, water buffalo sandals, and was just back from Woodstock. We were not of the same mold. As he worked on my schedule filling it in with class after class of physiology, history of sport, athletic skill courses and more, he announced that there was one schedule slot open and I could choose a course of my own liking. I responded with “I’d like to take art history.” He responded with an incredulous stare, a laugh, and remarked, “Are you kidding. I meant something like The Psychology of Coaching Baseball, or Origins of Lacrosse in North In America.” I responded by getting up, thanking him for his time, leaving his office and heading over to the art department. I was 17 years old and had just made what would end up being one of the most important decisions of my life. Thus began my career in art.
As a student I took as many art courses as possible and declared sculpture as my studio major—Kudos to my mother! As a degree requirement, you had to take a course in crafts. Mind you, this was 1971 and the debate between the validity of a craft as a fine art was raging. Our department offered pottery, jewelry, metal work, flat glass, textile design, and basket making. Not having any experience in any one of them and not being particularly attracted to any one, I put the name of each course on a slip of paper, taped each slip on the wall of my apartment, stood back, closed my eyes, and threw a dart. It landed on pottery. Not “near” pottery or in between pottery and jewelry, but on pottery. I entered the studio for the first class and my teacher began by doing a throwing demonstration. No talking, no explanation. Just him and the clay and the wheel. The clay looked like it was flowing off his fingers. It was as if he was waltzing with the clay. I was hypnotized, mesmerized, taken prisoner. I turned to my friend standing next to me and said “I’m going to be a potter when I grow up.”
My start in clay was clearly by accident but when did this accident take place? Where did my road to clay begin? Grade school? Parental influence? A dynamic high school art teacher? That narrow focused academic advisor or was it as simple as that fateful dart? I could be a jeweler now.
Question of the Week: Did you start with pottery by accident or by design? Click here to read other responses and to add your own answer.